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Countdown to kickoff: Auburn’s most important offensive lineman this season is…

Auburn offensive line Austin Golson runs drills at practice on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016 at the university's athletic complex.
Auburn offensive line Austin Golson runs drills at practice on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016 at the university's athletic complex. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Editor’s note: T-minus 12 days and counting until Auburn opens the season against Clemson on Sept. 3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Check back every morning as we break down the roster, profile key players and look at unanswered questions coming out of training camp.

Auburn’s competition on the offensive line is all but over.

The group expected to start on Sept. 3 — Robert Leff (RT), Braden Smith (RG), Xavier Dampeer (C), Alex Kozan (LG) and Austin Golson (LT) — will get the next two weeks to rep with each other preparing for Clemson.

“It looks that way right now as long as we stay healthy,” Malzahn said. “That's a group that's gelling.”

The competition for the second team is also taking shape. Mike Horton is the next man up at guard, Kaleb Kim has solidified the backup center role and Darius James and Tyler Carr look to be the tentative second team tackles.

Coaches expressed confidence in both groups through the spring into the fall, but what if one of the starting lineman fails to perform or ends up getting injured? Is there a lynchpin to Auburn’s plans on offense?

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee views center as one of the most important positions on the field. The person who snaps the ball in Auburn’s offense helps establish the rhythm in what’s supposed to be a high-tempo offense.

“Center is a huge part of our offense,” Lashlee said. “Obviously, he and the quarterback are the only two guys who touch it every snap. Just in the communication, and being a little bit of a field general.”

Auburn is going with Dampeer, a player with limited game experience in the role. The Copiah-Lincoln Community College missed most of last season with an injured jaw thanks to teammate D’haquille Williams and made just five appearances in two years for the Tigers.

Dampeer has earned the trust of his fellow lineman since taking over the first team reps midway through spring.

“He’s got more confidence than I’ve seen from him before, which is a good thing,” Auburn guard Alex Kozan said. “He brings his best effort every day.”

With the increasing level of confidence in Dampeer, the other contender for Auburn’s most important lineman might be Austin Golson.

One of the highlights of Coach Malzahn’s tenure as coach has been a string of strong left tackles (Shon Coleman, Greg Robinson) and the coaches hope Golson can add his name to that list.

The coaching staff is very pleased with the depth it has on the interior of the line. Horton might be the next man up in case of an injury, but he’s far from the only name capable of stepping in at a high level for Smith or Kozan.

Auburn just doesn’t have the same kind of depth at tackle, an issue offensive line coach Herb Hand discussed during spring camp.

“We've got to figure out that part of the equation,” Hand said.

Golson underperforming or suffering an injury could be a significant setback for the offense.

Stat of the day

Analytics website Pro Football Focus graded Auburn’s offensive line as the best in the SEC at pass protection last year. According to the site, Auburn gave up 61 pressures last year, the lowest in the conference by double-digits (11).

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